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"Retail is a combination of everything I love and do with pleasure"

"Retail is a combination of everything I love and do with pleasure"

© Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE


Maria Zolotkova, who earned her bachelor’s from ICEF, believes that it is economics education that provides the grounding for proficiency in brand management and marketing. Maria currently holds the position of Vice President for Brand Development at Azbuka Vkusa (The ABC of Taste). In this interview with Success Builder, Maria tells why she considers FMCG to be the best learning ground for marketers, what brand managers are responsible for, and how her favorite grocery chain employed her as its manager.

At the time you enrolled in HSE, majors such as marketing and management were still in their infancy in Russia. What were the options for you as applicant?

It has always been important for me to be free to make my own choices as to where to study and what. I once chose to change school right in the middle of the academic year. The idea to get a degree in economics education was mine too. When I was 13, I learned from a magazine article there existed the profession of brand manager. I thought to myself, “That’s the job I want to work. I have to learn economics and management.” What followed was quite logical: I quit my concentration in humanities and reoriented to economics to prepare myself for admission to HSE – I couldn’t think of a better place to study economics.

While exploring my options at HSE, I came across ICEF and its unique programme. With English as the language of instruction, it involves students working for two degrees, one from the Russian school and the other from an overseas one. I was so interested that I decided to apply only to ICEF. Its bachelor’s programme was young at that time, with just two classes graduated, but the opportunity to get the diploma from the University of London was that very benefit that got me. I chose to major in Economics and Management and got enrolled.

Photo: Mikhail Dmitriev/ HSE

I remember we had many top class teachers – of microeconomics, macroeconomics, econometrics. But back then, there wasn’t such thing as marketing education in Russia, in fact. The first decent courses and programmes didn’t appear until I graduated.

ICEF sets itself apart by giving students a strong academic grounding. Did you ever consider building a career in academia? Or pursuing another track you could had the talent for?

No, I was never attracted to academia as it seemed to be disconnected from the real world. If I ever had queries, they were about whether I should change from in-house to consulting. The latter seems to have more ways for unfolding our academic potential. But, my relationship with the consulting industry never went further than job interviews: I was absolutely stuck on the idea of working on the manufacturer’s side as allowing to actually touch the work of your own hand.

My job gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. I take interest in every task I assume

This is probably thanks to my having been wise enough to follow what I knew I’d be good at. Many of the people I know are already burned out. They are tired of what they do professionally. The light in their eyes went out, mine is still on. Nearly every area of practice might assumingly be reduced to a set of positions with pre-set tasks, but not marketing. It is an incredibly diverse field, spanning product management, creative inputs, PR and other lines of work that are closely associated with things of applied and social nature. As my career unfolds, I keep learning new things and changing industries. I chose to be a brand manager, but I now have a much larger scope of duties and responsibilities.

The job of a marketer is evolving fast. I am lucky to have the awesome team to lead and learn from. They are like advanced training courses to me. But, given the many new disciplines that continue to emerge today, one has to attend trainings and workshops to keep up with the knowledge. That said, I’m voting with both hands for the fundamental education in economics, finance, mathematics, engineering – these fields of knowledge make an excellent grounding for many professions including marketing.

Did your first job work out well for you?

I have been working since I was 17. Formal internships never happened, because I went straight into family business. My father is one of those people who were at the start of advertising industry in the ’90s. I and my brother – he engages in advertising production – grew up in an atmosphere with a lot of discussion and debate about video advertisements, ad making and what goes with advertising communication.

About Maria Zolotkova:

Maria Zolotkova earned her bachelor’s degree from ICEF in 2006. She then worked for Nestle for two years as a Management Trainee and assumed the role of a brand manager in 2008. After Nestle, Maria joined The Coca-Cola Company, where she was responsible for Fanta and Coca-Cola brands. In 2015, she switched her career from FMCG to IT, having assumed the position of Services director at Avito and then marketing director at Yandex.Zen. Since 2020, Maria holds the post of Vice President for Brand Development at Azbuka Vkusa (The ABC of Taste).

My first job was to assist in filming of advertisement. That involved all sorts of things from talent search to being a food stylist to being assistant producer and casting director. I met Publicis United people on the set and asked if they had a job me. Eventually, I started working a full-time job when I was a senior undergraduate and then joined Nestle after graduation, because I wanted to gain experience as product manager and marketing expert, whereas Publicis United specialized in communications.

How did you get into big marketing?

At Nestle, I started out as a Management Trainee in marketing, sales, finance and logistics. I gained the understanding of how businesses worked at large before delving into the elements of brand techniques. I think it got me off to a good start, because it gave me the understanding of where I wanted to be and what I had the talent for. After Nestle, I joined The Coca-Cola Company.

Did your degree in finance help you get your foot in the door?

My education is more economic than financial. My curriculum included courses such as social studies, political science, along with accounting and corporate finance. It turned out to be very well balanced.

The faculty staff pose challenging tasks as a way of engaging students. They instill in you the critical thinking skills and thoughtful approach. They teach you how to apply knowledge in different situations in order to cope with both theoretical and practical tasks. And because I learned to be comfortable with the unknown, I had it easier switching between industries and specializations within marketing. ICEF, and HSE at large, is a great place to boost your brain power.

So for you, the university became a place to gear up your soft skills?

To a large extent, yes. One skill I strongly rely on today is creating order out of chaos. Going about a problem involves breaking it down into elements, getting to their core and identifying actions towards a balanced solution. In this sense, economics education is the best that marketers can get to be properly prepared for their future job roles. It is the best education I could get.

Is it correct that marketing is essentially about soft skills?

And hard skills and experience. Marketing is a huge domain, with data analytics, performance marketing, CRM, creatives and design, communications, brand and product management as its elements. It would be next to impossible to explore them all in detail on the theoretical side. And it’s only through experience that the understanding comes of how they work together and independently to produce effect. Therefore, for me, hands-on experience has been a very important success factor.

My advice to those of the graduating bachelor’s students who are considering further study would be to get some job experience first

Because there’s nothing better than training on-the-job. How else can one find out if they are on the right track and see what’s happening on the market? Staying aware is crucial to further training. I see extra learning as what should be taken once you are sure about your choice and that you need to level up your skills or retrain for a new job. In my case, retraining has never been an issue. It just seemed interesting to get deeper into what I’m already experienced in and to become a better version of my professional self.

Dedicated courses, conferencing and networking have been great ways to upgrade my hard and soft skills. My current source of advanced training is my team. I have some truly remarkable people on it, who help us get through lots of different tasks.

Azbuka Vkusa (The ABC of Taste) maintains a partnership with HSE. Together, we involve students in a business simulation game which is designed to expose them to real business dilemmas. It is essential that students are aware of the real state of things in the industry.

How is FMCG useful to students in terms of job experience and career start?

I have 10 years of experience in FMCG. Despite the growth of IT and the recent evolution in the retail market, I still see FMCG as the best learning ground for marketers, a place where people can gain all knowledge of the tools and processes of business management. In recent years, FMCG companies have made a major breakthrough in digital marketing and data analytics, offering the skills in data management.

What are the duties and responsibilities of a brand manager?

I like to think that brand manager is very much like business manager, sort of a mini-CEO, the only difference being that instead of direct subordination, he or she uses empowering as a basic means of interacting with the team. Brand manager is responsible for the cross-functional tasks relating to the product and the business. He is in close contact with the manufacturing team, the legal team, and the sales team. Brand manager should be aware of the customer needs and be able to achieve a product-market fit to anticipate the customer needs in terms of formula, packaging, pricing, sales channels.

My knowledge of finance has been a great tool for me as a brand manager. At Nestle, I teamed up with the finance department to build P&L for a new category, frozen pizza. Brand management has lots of versatility, shifting focus between business management techniques and communication and offering a source of inspiration to everyone involved.

You have worked also for some of Russia’s leading IT industries – Avito and Yandex. Why them?

There are two things that drive me in my career – intuitiveness and enthusiasm for promising activities. While considering my prospects in IT, I realized that FMCG became an open book over those 10 years. It was time to update my skillset and ambitions. The IT industry seemed promising. I knew I would be working on the frontlines of the industry. Hence my decision to join Avito and then Yandex.

How far is digital marketing apart from classical marketing?

Classic marketing is here to stay but is undergoing changes. We’ll always be looking for ways to improve our communication with the customers, understand their needs and perfect our product positioning. At the same time, there emerge new tools to measure our performance and reach out to consumers – they are the vehicles for digital marketing.

The competencies within digital marketing are several. Performance marketing is meant to increase and convert traffic into sales or a specific action such as installation by the client of a mobile application. My job at Yandex.Zen involved testing different approaches to creatives and traffic building sources in order to motivate consumers to install the app and spend more time on it.

SMM (Social Media Marketing) is becoming extensively data-driven, too, while still involving a hefty amount of creativity and experimenting with the content. SMM has figures for absolutely everything, and social networks user interaction has long been a commercial thing. When the time is right, brands invest money in promising content to covert the traffic into bigger sales.

Another exciting field within digital marketing is Influencer Marketing, which uses endorsements and product mentions from influencers – for example, bloggers who get hired by the brands to promote their products among subscribers. Any strategy within digital marketing largely relies on data. Data management is embedded even in the most creative of promotion strategies. It is seen as one of the most important aspects of the marketing success. And data management skills are honed best through education in economics and finance.

When it comes to marketing in IT companies, their focus has recently been mostly on performance marketing. But when it comes to scaling up their offline marketing efforts, they still can’t do without classical image advertising tools. Therefore, FMCG marketers remain highly sought-after experts.

I heard a marketer say, “The onslaught of data has killed the quest for creativity”. It’s a data driven world.

I wouldn’t agree with this. The quest for creativity will never end, just as the need for human workers in the jobs that can’t be done by AI.

Smart machines might be able to replace human workers, but they can never replace human ingenuity

Take, for instance, Google UAC – a key performance marketing tool in the family of algorithms designed to recommend your product to those user groups who they think might find the product relevant. Here, the job of a marketer comes down solely to experimenting with the data to be fed to Google, and directly with creative advertising. Therefore, the ultimate result appears to be one hundred percent contingent on how captivatingly you manage to design the product presentation.

How does Yandex employ AI to promote its marketing?

Artificial intelligence is at the core of Yandex.Zen’s every product. The most difficult part is to find the right way to highlight its value. People perceive AI as a technology, and many fear it. It is therefore important to make it clear where AI can be of help to people. We put our focus on creating cool content and appealing to interests: We all have our own interests, and Zen offers content to suit every taste. In this sense, AI connects acts as a link between the content that you see and your interests, perfecting itself as you scroll through the feed and watch the content.

Are marketers good work-life balancers?

It’s difficult to answer definitively. My colleagues seem to enjoy different paces of life and workload. It depends on the company, the brand, personal ambitions. For me, workload has never been a problem – it can be high, indeed, but it’s never mundane and I don’t notice the time passing. My workload varies with my tasks, depending largely on the line of work I do. So, it’s certainly to avoid saying, “Guys, become marketers and you’ll be going home at six, or, conversely, you’ll be staying late in the office, because it can be both.” But there should definitely be the time to get inspired, enhance visual experience, switch from daily routines to physical and mental health. If none of this happens, it’s a sign that change is needed.

Why did you decide to join the retail sector? What makes The ABC of Taste an exciting place to work?

It was time to once again change the industry. Actually, the change as radical as that can be compared to a mini-degree, but given my previous experience of moving to IT, where I had worked for five years, making that next move proved easier. Retail is a combination of everything I love and do with pleasure. Some of the tasks I have at The ABC of Taste are rooted in the classical brand management – I mean development and promotion of the company’s own brands, image communications and projects. At the same time, much of the action has moved online – and retail sector, in this sense, is starting to be governed by the laws of IT companies. I joined The ABC of Taste at the height of the pandemic, completely unaware of its long-lasting effects and how the retail sector would receive a huge boost.

By the time I joined the company, it was obvious that its brand needed a refresh. So, one year later, I and my team set about rebranding The ABC of Taste, the first time in 15 years

This is only the beginning. Huge work is underway to come up with visual elements, brand semantics, and product line. My new role comes with a supertask of being a leader to a team of more than 100 people.

My team had to be partly rebuilt on the go, in parallel with rebuilding of the operational concept and rebranding. I used my ability to learn by doing, and the leadership trainings I attended have certainly been of use.

For some, personal loyalty to a brand may not be first thing to consider when choosing a job, but I feel personally attached. The ABC of Taste is turning 25 this year! I am glad to be able to contribute to its success. As one those few brands that have survived the changes of the last two decades, it has evolved into an icon. The ABC of Taste has won the love of its loyal audience. I can see the potential, and we, its team, will do our best to unfold it. That’s why I’m here.